We’d like to take a look at the core of new relationships: the deep bond a couple builds through intimate interaction, in particular through their daily conversations. In this post, we will explain how to apply Dr. Gottman’s skills for sharing compassion and empathy with your partner.

Note: While the ideas we share are theoretically pretty straightforward, they can be difficult to put into practice. If you find implementing them to be a challenge, don’t get discouraged! Remember Dr. Gottman’s advice: No opinions or problem solving until you’ve gone through the four steps of attunement. 

Also, remember that immediate advice may come off as glib and insulting to your partner. They may think to themselves, “Does this person think I’m so dumb I can’t come up with my own solution?” This probably rings a few bells – bells of annoyance and maybe even indignation.

Below, you’ll find an illustration of two possible conversations between Cheyenne and Will, a young couple walking home from a dinner with their mutual friend, Abby.

The first example is a failed attempt at expressing compassion and empathy in a bid for intimate conversation:

Cheyenne: I couldn’t believe how Abby reacted when I brought up what happened at the party. What a crude attempt at changing the subject! Who does she think she is? Just shutting me down like that…

Will: You know Abby just doesn’t like crowds. Next time, you shouldn’t bring it up, it makes everything so awkward.

Cheyenne: You’re such a pushover, why can’t you stand up for me? You thought she was acting weird the other night, I don’t see why I can’t talk to her about it.

Will: Come on, we’ve been through this before. Let’s go get some coffee or something. On the way, I can show you that art gallery I thought you’d like.

Cheyenne: No, whatever. It’s fine, let’s just go home.

In this scenario, Will reacts without considering Cheyenne’s need for support from him when she is upset. He immediately rushes to offer an explanation, even defending the person his girlfriend feels attacked by. He refuses to engage with her on an emotional level and attempts to distract her instead. She is left feeling disappointed and even more frustrated than before. She expected his empathy, and instead received advice she didn’t ask for and criticism she certainly didn’t expect to hear. Here is a way that Will could apply Dr. Gottman’s skills for intimate conversation to the same scenario, increasing his and Cheyenne’s attunement and trust in each other:

Cheyenne: I couldn’t believe how Abby reacted when I brought up what happened at the party. What a crude attempt at changing the subject! Who does she think she is? Just shutting me down like that…

Will: I’m sorry, I understand how that would make you upset. I know you wanted to help, but she never wants to go there.

Cheyenne: I like Abby… It’s just so frustrating that I have to walk on eggshells around her. It’s exhausting.

Will: That makes sense. I hate it when I have to censor myself in social situations. I just want to relax, too.

Cheyenne: Yeah. You know what? Let’s go see that gallery you’ve been talking about, the one you said I’d like…

Try these techniques in your own relationship, and the results may surprise you! By engaging in supportive, intimate conversations with your partner, you can build trust – the most important ingredient in a healthy, happy relationship – and be closer than ever!

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How To Share Compassion & Empathy in Intimate Conversation

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.